Destinies collide on the Nile: Robert Fisk takes a train journey to the Valley of the Kings where the signposts of Islamic resurgence mark the end of Egypt's tourist trail

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THE 12 o'clock to Luxor left dead on time, 15 old Romanian-made, Ceausescu-era carriages pulled by a roaring Boy's Own diesel loco with oil stains over its silver, black and red livery, packed as always, groaning over the Nile and up the gradient through the slums of Imbaba. The German couple in carriage No 2 looked out at the tottering mud, brick and straw apartment blocks, the piles of rubbish and the infants playing beside dust-covered lakes of sewage, a breeding-ground for Imbaba's mosquitoes and President Hosni Mubarak's enemies. This was not in the tourist brochures.

Nor was the quaint and elderly figure - who emerged through the connecting door before our train had completed the loop line to Giza - round white taqiya cap on his head, the mere suggestion of a goatee beard, and a high, gabbling voice that bestowed God's blessing upon all of us while beseeching our assistance in the building of a new mosque. In his hand, he held a book of coupons. For just 25 piastres (5p), we would receive a coupon and know we had served God's purpose. The Germans were nonplussed. The other passengers forked out their piastres.

It was a strange, hybrid old train we had taken down the Nile Valley, a journey which blended the secular and the theological in a peculiarly Egyptian way. At 1pm, on this last day of Ramadan, the rail catering staff pushed round a trolley containing sandwiches, Pepsi and - of all things - bottles of beer.

We were south of Wasta when the Egyptian railway conductor arrived in the carriage with a grubby sheet of brown cardboard, which he placed on the floor beside the door, just in front of our seats. The train was rough-riding on the permanent way, taking the curves at speed, but the conductor knelt down at an angle to the wall of the carriage and began praying in the general direction of Mecca.

The problem, of course, was that the train was following the Nile, changing the location of Islam's holiest city every few seconds. So our conductor moved with the bends in the track, until he finished his devotions at right-angles to the wall.

It was moving and slightly disconcerting. 'Does the driver do this too?' the German man asked. The other passengers paid no attention. Muslims are as unselfconscious as they are uncritical about their religion. Hence they did not react when they saw beside the track the smashed windows of a Coptic church in Dairut, and the scruffy soldiers guarding a Christian school in Asyut.

The bright pastures and the palm trees of the Nile Valley are undeniably beautiful, although they held no attraction for a thin middle-aged man with a pointed beard and brown robes sitting two seats behind us, reading from a paperback in Arabic. Drus min Bosna-Herzig was its title - 'Lessons from Bosnia-Herzegovina'. He moved his lips angrily as he turned the pages. The cover was illustrated with a a curved dagger in a pool of blood.

At sundown, ticket collectors and conductors gathered around us to eat bread and salad from old newspapers. They were dressed in blue railway uniforms but all now wearing the same white taqiya cap as had the old man selling coupons hours before. Islam was an unstated, constant phenomenon on the 12 o'clock from Cairo, something to observe and to remember, albeit uneasily, when we arrived in the venality of Luxor.

Most of its population survive on tourism, so there is no local opposition to the American and European women in swimsuits by the hotel pools, to the Dutch holidaymakers round the Hilton's Sunset Bar, to the greed of the taxi drivers and the hawkers of 18th-Dynasty alabaster heads. It is an oasis amid Egypt's gathering crisis, and the Western tour companies now fly clients directly into the town's airport, avoiding Cairo and Aswan and all those disturbing rumours about a blind sheikh in New York who would like 'Aids-carrying tourists' to be removed from Egypt.

SHEIKH Omar Abdul-Rahman would have been appalled had he been able to see the Valley of the Kings next morning. Among the thousands of tourists were girls in shorts and, in one case, a striking skin-tight pink leotard that even caught the attention of the sleepy police constables in their threadbare brown tunics. There were American culture-freaks lugging 750-page handbooks round the decorated tomb of Seti II, and elegant middle-aged English women who had all, so they assured me, consulted the Foreign Office before departure. 'People are so nice and kind, I find it hard to believe there's any real problem,' one of them confided later. 'Anyway, they say that other people are behind the trouble.'

Yes, they do say that. Our own guide, 'Mr Hussein', as he wished to be called, at first claimed the 14 cruise ships tied up at Luxor had been halted because of problems with the old British-built dam up-river, a hopeless excuse that he abandoned the moment I asked about the little local troubles in Egypt. 'There is no trouble in Luxor, only in Asyut and Aswan, and the police are dealing with these people who do not represent Egypt,' Mr Hussein replied at once. 'It is a plot which you must not worry about.'

No tourists take taxis up the Valley of the Nile from Luxor, because they would come across a war less than 200 miles to the north. Despite the attacks on Christian farmers - 12 have been done to death these past six months - only a few elderly constables guard the back roads to Asyut. Only when you reach the outskirts of the city do you come across soldiers with fixed bayonets on the Nile barrage, military foot patrols and those lean young men in wide-bottomed trousers and cheap sunglasses who make up the local Special Branch.

'Islam is the solution,' the posters tell you, thousands of them plastered to Asyut's dingy houses and shops and mosques. 'Mubarak and the nation are one people,' announces a series of poorly produced government fly-sheets with Saddam-like insistence, each one pasted over the insurrectionist literature. But Sheikh Omar has had the last word. An earnest man warily shows me a new tract from the Jersey City prelate, handed out at a neighbouring mosque to mark the end of Ramadan, just the day before my arrival.

'I say this with you - 'No and no again' to Mubarak and your guillotines (sic) and your policy of fire and steel,' the Sheikh says. 'Your dictatorial state will not last another hour . . . The silence of the tombs is over . . . Say 'No' to the tyrannical rule of one man and one party and one opinion. It is time for God's word to rule . . . Punish them as they have punished you.' But, of course, it is the Sheikh's disciples in the el-Gemaat el-Islamiya (Islamic Group) who have been punished. Evidence is not far from the railway lines.

A serious young man led me to a rubbish-littered crossroads at Shirket Ferial Street and pointed to a five-storey building. Bullet holes had broken away the plaster and shutters on the second and third floors. 'They came to kill,' was all the man said before he asked, a little late, for evidence that I was a journalist. Then he crept off into the shadows. Death squads. It was a familiar phrase.

A week ago, the police had surrounded Muslim gunmen in this house, shooting 10 of them dead, including the man they claimed was their leader, Ahmed Zaki, and wounding another 11, at the cost of one policeman's life. Major Abdul Rassoul was killed by a hand-grenade thrown during the 10-hour battle.

Little wonder the young men in this street no longer wished to identify themselves by their appearance. The barbers of Asyut have been among the few artisans to make profits these past weeks. The city is as beardless as it is suspicious.

Nothing, however, could shake the confidence of Mohamed Abdul-Mohsen. Sitting in his home only half a mile from the scene of the shooting - a Koran was displayed on an ornamental reading stand in the living-room - the local secretary-general of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party was brimful of confidence. 'The Gemaa are under siege and are falling apart, especially after the death of Ahmed Zaki and a large number of terrorists,' he told me. 'And the killing of police martyr Major Rassoul provoked anger among the people. About 50,000 attended his funeral. They shouted slogans against the terrorists - and yes, for national unity and peace.'

Egypt, Mr Abdul Mohsen added with fearful conviction, would 'finish off terrorism with total confrontation'. And the problems upon which the Gemaa preyed - unemployment and the stagnant economy - would be solved. In the meantime, the loyal people of Asyut understood only too well what was going on. 'There is a big international plot,' Mr Abdul-Mohsen announced. 'The people know that international Zionism is behind these terrorist activities.' Mr Hussein would have applauded. 'International Zionism', indeed. What next would the people of Asyut be asked to believe?

It was necessary to visit a jewelry shop near the railway lines to be reminded of other victims of this war. The Christian owner shook hands and sat down beneath a lurid painting of the Virgin and child. 'I have many Muslim friends,' he said. 'But these Gemaa people threaten us. They kill Coptic villagers and the government does nothing. They write 'Death to Christians' on the walls here. Sometimes they pass my shop - I know who they are because everyone knows everyone else in Asyut - and they look at me and draw a finger across their throat. You people worry about the tourists. But of the 5 million people in this governorate, a quarter are Christians - and it is us Christians who are frightened.'

SHERIF, an American University student in computer sciences, had been visiting his father - an Asyut governorate official - and sat next to me on the overnight train back up the Nile. He spoke good English, apologising for the dirty, overcrowded second-class carriages and the eight hours it would take us to reach Cairo. He was 25 and wanted to go to the United States.

So I was surprised when he began to explain the wisdom of the Koran and the need for Egypt's people to turn to their religion in the face of adversity. Not to Sheikh Omar's preachings, he said. 'But if you have nothing - if your life is hardship - you have only God to rely on. So why do you people always make Muslims out to be terrorists? Why do you attack us as 'fundamentalists'?'

Across the corridor, a tired man in a scruffy galabaya robe turned on a cheap transistor and tuned it to Egypt's government-controlled 24-hour Islamic station. A Koranic recitation wailed from the speaker. 'Do England and America want to go to war with Islam?' Sherif suddenly asked. No, I said, although I thought there were those in both countries who might find it in their interest to pretend this was so. And I suggested there were Muslims in Egypt who might also find advantage in claiming this was true.

I had to raise my voice to be heard. For down the carriage, other passengers had now produced radios tuned to the same Islamic station, to the same tinny voice. All the way to Cairo we were assured that God was greatest, that there was no God but God, that Mohamed was His Messenger. 'Al-salatu khayrun min al-nawm,' the radio wailed as we neared Cairo in the early hours. 'Prayer is better than sleep.'

(Photographs omitted)